Plan Near for Global Climate Monitoring

By KENJI HALL, April 23, 2004, 9:08 AM EDT

TOKYO -- Nations are near agreement on the blueprint of a global climate monitoring system that would help forecast environmental threats such as rising sea levels or drought, but negotiating the details won't be easy, U.S. officials said Friday.

Officials from 47 nations and more than two dozen international organizations are meeting in Tokyo this week to decide what the climate watch system should look like, who will run it and how open it should be. They are expected to announce on Sunday a plan for the next decade through 2015.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head, Mike Leavitt, cautioned that the system will likely suffer growing pains. "Will there be problems? Yes. Will there be people who see this as being a threat? Absolutely. Will some people leave? Yes," Leavitt told The Associated Press in an interview. "That's the reason this will take a decade to work through and not a year."

But Leavitt said nations believe that learning more about the oceans, forests and atmosphere can promote +science+, boost economic growth and help fight diseases. It could also create billions of dollars of projects for businesses.

The goals range from reducing destruction and deaths from natural disasters to improving water and energy management and assessing and predicting climate change, according to a draft for the Global Earth Observation System of Systems obtained by AP.

The United States, whose environmental policy has often riled other countries, has led the debate, which was initiated by the Group of Eight richest nations last year.

Details of the system aren't expected to emerge until early next year, after a follow-up meeting in Brussels, Belgium. It's also not clear how much it will cost.

Nations already have technology -- such as satellites, ocean buoys, fixed weather stations and balloons -- to monitor the oceans, forests and atmosphere and collect data about the world's weather patterns and other threats such as El Nino.

But nations don't always share that information and there's no system that adds up data from all those sources to show how the globe's climate is changing.

This week's discussions have focused on how an overseer should coordinate the effort and how scientists and governments can share and standardize information, said Conrad Lautenbacher, a retired naval vice admiral who heads the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It requires technical agreements as well as political agreements. It's a complicated process," Lautenbacher told AP.

Future discussions will address how the United States, Japan, Russia, China and the European Commission can divvy up the data-collecting work among their Earth-orbiting satellites, Lautenbacher said. Lautenbacher said learning more about the oceans will be key. "The oceans represent an area that have been both underexplored and underobserved," he said. "They are extremely important to working on climate variability and understanding climate change."

Although dozens of countries signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas reduction, the United States has rejected it, saying the pact depends on unreliable or incomplete scientific data and could hurt the economy. Lautenbacher said this week's initiative would allow policy-makers to more accurately gauge pollutants that contribute to global warming. International groups say getting scientists and policy-makers to talk signifies progress.

"This is important to combining all of the actors involved," said Gerhard Beutler, from the International Association of Geodesy, a nonprofit group that specializes in the +science+ of measuring the Earth.

"We can't afford not to be here," said Beutler, who is also a professor at the University of Berne in Switzerland.